This ones no Koufax, but Dodgers have another Jewish star

Playing a position in baseball known for its abuse on the body, Brad Ausmus has proven to be one of the most durable Jews in Major League Baseball history.

Now in his 17th season in the majors, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ reserve catcher will go into a three-game series beginning Monday, Aug. 10 against the Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco fewer than 15 games away from the record for most games played by a Jewish player in MLB history.

An All-Star Game starter in 1999 who was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame five years ago, Ausmus is 40 now and adjusting to his new role as a backup to young Dodgers’ star Russell Martin.

As of press time, Ausmus had appeared in just 23 of the Dodgers’ 107 games this season. He did, however, pass Buddy Myer for No. 2 on the list of career games played by a Jewish player and is closing in on the top spot. (Myer’s Jewishness is open to debate, but Jewish Major Leaguers does include him in its card sets and reference materials.)

An infielder from 1925 to 1941, Myer played in 1,923 games, a total Ausmus surpassed nine weeks ago. Now, with 1,937 games to his name, he is nearing the all-time record of 1,951 held by Shawn Green, who retired after the 2007 season.

Los Angeles Dodgers backup catcher Brad Ausmus is closing in on the record for most games played by a Jewish player in Major League Baseball history. photo/ap/ed andrieski

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Ausmus said of playing with the first-place Dodgers this season. “This is a group of young, energetic, very talented players. So it’s been a lot of fun to come to the stadium, even though I am in a new role as a backup. It’s been exciting.”

Ausmus made his major-league debut with the San Diego Padres in 1993, but gained most of his fame in 10 seasons with the Houston Astros, winning three Gold Gloves for defense.

This year, he is playing well in limited duty, batting .328 in 67 at-bats, with no errors in 158 innings behind the plate.

While being interviewed for this article, Ausmus was sitting in front of his locker and opening fan mail on Jewish Community Night at Dodger Stadium. The Giants’ are preparing for their own such event at AT&T Park, Jewish Heritage Night, Aug. 27 against the Arizona Diamondbacks at 7:15 p.m.

As the only Jewish player on the Dodgers this year, Ausmus is the marquee Jewish name on a team with a storied historical roster of Jews: Sandy Koufax, Larry Sherry, Norm Sherry, Mike Lieberthal, Steve Yeager and Green.

Green ranks second in career home runs (328 to Hank Greenberg’s 331) and hits (2,003 to Myers’ 2,131) among Jewish players. Ausmus isn’t the slugger Green was — in 1999, he hit a career-high nine home runs — but he’s also one of the best Jews to ever call a game.

“In a different era, Ausmus might have been considered one of the greats,” Howard Megdal writes in “The Baseball Talmud,” in which he ranks Ausmus the third-best Jewish catcher of all time, behind Harry Danning (New York Giants, 1933-42) and Lieberthal. “But with base stealing de-emphasized and power considered the key, a catcher who prevents thefts and provides little pop is less valuable than ever.”

Ausmus’ childhood was not steeped in Jewish identity, with a Protestant Christian father and a Jewish mother. As a child he celebrated Jewish holidays with his mother’s family, but Ausmus didn’t really identify as a Jew.

“I wasn’t raised with the Jewish religion, so in that sense I don’t really have much feeling toward it,” he said. “However, in the last 10 or so years, I have had quite a few young Jewish boys who will tell me that I am their favorite player or they love watching me play or they feel like baseball is a good fit for them because it worked for me or it worked for Shawn Green or other Jewish players at the major league level.

“It has been a sense of pride. If you can have a positive impact on a kid, I’m all for it.”

Ausmus wouldn’t say if Los Angeles would be the last stop of his career. He still feels like he could go out and play every day, but the Dodgers signed him to a one-year, $1 million contract, and at this stage Ausmus, whose family lives near San Diego, really doesn’t want to play anywhere but Southern California. That limits his options.

“I’m not going to worry about it,” he said. “So far I’ve had a lot of fun doing this in L.A.”

San Francisco Giants Jewish Heritage Night, Aug. 27, 7:15 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks at AT&T Park. $18. Tickets or information: Craig Solomon, (415) 972-2239 or csolomon@sfgiants.com, or www.sfgiants.com. Also check with local Jewish groups and synagogues, many of which have purchased groups of tickets.